August 4, 2012

Blog the Eighteenth: Eggplant in Season

Make it easy, make it garlicKy.

The piles of eggplant at market are even higher than those of zucchini, eggplant being summer’s big boy.  This kid is high‑maintenance, though, and has been so from its youth.  Although eggplant’s agricultural history is long debated among those who care, it apparently began as a small prickly green vegetable with bland flesh and a bitter taste.  Being a member of the deadly nightshade family (like its cousin the tomato), it was sometimes feared to be poisonous.  What but an incurably curious omnivore could sustain interest in such a food? 

Human domestication has managed to get rid of eggplant’s pricks, but not always its bitter after-taste, so it often requires purging before cooking.  Cross-breeding has also managed to educe a variety of shapes and colors, one of those being the smallish white ovular variety that has given the fruit its English name.  A momentary mood of linguistic atavism once moved me to overpay for intriguing little white eggplants on offing at the gourmet market.  The recalcitrance of their flesh to flavoring and softening gave me a refresher course in the sophistries of gourmet supermarkets.

Thomas Jefferson brought purple eggplant to America as a table decoration, but it took immigrants of the Mediterranean and Asia to teach Americans how to eat eggplant.  It is labor-intensive food to cook, so as a cook you must understand that its virtue is not so much in its flavor as in the power of its spongy flesh to assimilate the flavors you feed it.  In this respect, it is like white mushrooms.

I think receptive potency is much underrated in our day.  We tend to restrict the idea of power to the power to act, but the ability to receive is power as well.  There’s only one word for both power and potency in Latin (potentia) and Greek (dunamis), and ancient Greek and Latin philosophers used the same word to speak of the power of God to do all things and the power of matter to become all things. 

How many people are able to have another’s thought, to understand what is said to them in the terms in which it is said?  Receptive intelligence is rare and underrated.  Which is ultimately the higher form of intelligence, expressing one’s ideas or understanding natures?  Which is ultimately the higher form of art, imposing a novel form or actualizing a natural potential?  Is human ingenuity well invested in inventing fat that’s not fattening?  How about we just make food that’s twice as delicious and eat half as much.

Speaking of potential to be delicious, eggplant has power to take on many forms and flavors.  It submits to frying, roasting, baking, boiling, and pickling, yielding a different species of tactile delight each time.  It absorbs olive oil like a sponge—a good thing, duly moderated.  It loves garlic, but also befriends onion.  It’s happy to host parsley, basil, mint, oregano, marjoram, even thyme.  It likes Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and mozzarella.  Do I need to mention its affair with tomato sauce?

Though receptive to liaisons, however, eggplant wants wooing.  It rewards the persistent lover.  You’ve gotta have heart to cook eggplant—the heart of a cook.  So let me start you off with the easiest eggplant recipe I know.  My mother’s people call it eggplant al funghetto, which means mushroom style.  I don’t know why it’s called that.  The recipe was originally a way to rescue the still edible parts of old and wizened eggplant, the dehydrated texture of which does, I suppose, resemble mushroom sponginess.  The final cooked product is soft, dark, and oily—not very pretty, but very tasty with crunchy bread, and great next to dry roasted meats.

Myself, I’ve adapted the recipe in a way that works well even with fresh eggplant.  Mine ends up lighter, plumper, and prettier than my mother’s, but she doesn’t altogether approve of the alteration—although my Gentile friends do, which fact, I recognize, does not necessarily argue in my favor.  But my friend the Europhile Gentile would like nothing better than to be able to say to me with condescending complaisance that, as good as mine is, my mother’s eggplant is even better; but when I once happened to have leftover made by my mother side by side with leftover made by me, she felt compelled to pay me this high compliment:  “No, I wouldn’t say that your mother’s is necessarily better than yours.”  That triumph notwithstanding, I’m naming mine eggplant garlicky, to evade comparison.  I once told my father that I was making eggplant a way I learned from the Web, so as not to have to endure his explaining to me how I wasn’t doing it right, and the lie worked:  inspecting my pan, he pronounced that it looked tasty, and sort of like eggplant al funghetto. 

In a spirit of loyal dissent, let me sketch my mother’s recipe before giving mine.  She uses old eggplant of any sort, or will even get fresh eggplant and age it for the purpose, to dry it out and firm it up.   She peels it and cuts away any dark, unappetizing parts of the flesh.   Then she cuts it into big fat rectangular pieces.  She fries a lot of chopped garlic in a lot of olive oil until just golden, then adds in the eggplant, which quickly absorbs all the oil.  She lowers the heat and sautés it with frequent flipping, to keep the garlic from burning, until the eggplant releases some of the oil and begins to sizzle in it.  Then she adds some chopped tomato, just for color, and lots of chopped parsley, and she cooks the eggplant down until soft and unctuous.  At the end, she mixes in crumbled Pecorino Romano.

As for me, I start with fresh eggplant of the big dark purple variety, and brine it, in order simultaneously to purge its bitterness, fix its white color, and plump its flesh, which keeps it from absorbing too much oil in cooking.  I picked up this technique from my aunt in Sicily.  I think it genius.  This Sicilian approach, however, is diametrically opposite that of my mother’s more Neapolitan cooking.  When my grandmother made eggplant alla parmigiana, she used to salt slices of eggplant, layer them in a colander, and put a weight on them, to draw out bitter liquid from the eggplant flesh and also firm it up.  The eggplant slices come out flattened, shriveled, and darkened; in cooking they sometimes absorb excess oil, which needs to be blotted with paper towels. 

In contrast, I soak my eggplant in a bath of ¼ cup coarse salt to 1 quart water (using the weight of a bowl or plate to keep the slices under water), and after a half hour, brown bitterness leeches out into the water.  When I rinse, drain, and dry the eggplant, it comes out white and plump, and cooks up that way too.  Another benefit of soaking in water and spinning dry in a salad spinner is that seeds come loose and fall away:  seeds are a sign of mature fruit, and maturity brings bitterness to vegetable as to man.

If you don’t have time or patience for a purge, whether Neapolitan or Sicilian, my mother tells me that this recipe also works well with fresh eggplant of the long skinny kind (whether light purple or dark); but she says to cut them into big inch-thick discs and not to peel them, because you need their tender skin to shore up their delicate flesh during cooking, which tends otherwise to disintegrate. 

When I make my eggplant garlicky, I peel and slice big dark purple eggplant into thick inch-slices and cube the inch-slices into inch-cubes;  I then put them under a brine of ¼ cup coarse salt to 1 quart water for half an hour (or longer), and finally drain, rinse, and spin them dry.  I dump all the cubes into a broad pan in one more or less crowded layer.  I then very generously dress them evenly all over with extra virgin olive oil  (or else a mix of virgin and regular), shower them with salt, cover the pan, and put it on a medium-low flame.  I want the eggplant to steam in their own vapors until they release some of their oil and begin to sizzle in it, which means I have to flip them over frequently, to keep them from sticking and burning, until oil is shed. 

When the eggplant begins to shed its oil and sizzle in it, I uncover the pan.  If the oil shed is too skimpy to make the eggplant shiny and slippery, I don’t hesitate to add some more oil to the pan.  It’s better to have too much oil than too little:  you can always use a slotted spoon when serving to leave excess oil behind in the pan (which some gourmand will no doubt happily soak up with a piece of bread later when passing through the kitchen), but there’s no remedy for not having cooked enough oil into the eggplant to make it tasty.

While my eggplant has been oiling up in my pan, I’ve been chopping up cloves of garlic, by first halving them, then slicing the halves, flat side down, lengthwise into thick slivers, and then crosswise into thin pieces.  I feed my by now shiny eggplant this high pile of chopped garlic, and turn up the heat to medium.  I keep sautéing and flipping, to fry the garlic in the oil until golden, suffusing the eggplant with the sweetening flavor and perfuming the air with its golden aroma.

Meanwhile, I slice in half several pelati (whole peeled Roma tomatoes imported from Italy), gently squeeze out their juice and seeds, and chop them roughly into strips; I also chop a goodly amount of fresh parsley, or else tear up fresh basil leaves.  At the first sign of any gilding of the goldening garlic, I mix in the tomatoes and herb.  Now the eggplant starts to look pretty, with tart redness and fresh greenness to set off the golden flesh of the shiney eggplant

I keep cooking until the eggplant turns tender and tasty, tasting and correcting for salt as I go, needless to say.  If the eggplant dries out and starts sticking to the pan before it has turned tender and tasty, I add a bit of liquid, either plain water or perhaps pelati juice, to keep it slippery and moist while it cooks down to glossy and unctuous.  When the eggplant is done, I add Pecorino Romano, either grated, crumbled, or both, but at the end only, so that the cheese doesn’t melt and stick to the pan, in vain. 

I eat eggplant garlicky with crusty bread.  I love it.  So does everybody else.